Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s. I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress. It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one. Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact. The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.
The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters. One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California. A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges. A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition. Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.
Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co. It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse. On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.
Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition. This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.
I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.
A contemporary of artists such as Bradley Kincaid, and an antecedent of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, mountain balladeer Emry Arthur, with songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow”, was an important member of the first generation of popular American folk singers on records.
Emry Paul Arthur was born on September 17, 1902 in Wayne County, Kentucky. His father was a respected singer and amateur song collector in the area; his mother died when he was in infancy. Like his brothers, Emry followed in his father’s musical footsteps, learning to play a guitar; however, a hunting accident cost him a fingertip and limited him to a simple yet effective strumming style. In adulthood, the search for work brought him to Indianapolis. At the beginning of 1928, Arthur traveled a short ways to Chicago to make some records with his banjo-playing brother Henry for Vocalion. They sold better than might’ve been anticipated, and Arthur returned to record quite prolifically over the following year, until his marriage broke up and sent him to Wisconsin. There, he found employment with the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, and recorded for their Paramount label in 1929 and ’31, sometimes in duet with his new wife Della Hatfield. He also recorded for William Myers’ Lonesome Ace in 1929, providing guitar accompaniment for Dock Boggs on his four sides for the label. Following a single unissued recording for Gennett in 1931, Arthur took a four year recording hiatus, returning in 1935 for one session with Decca. All-in-all, Arthur’s recording activities resulted in a total of nearly one hundred sides from 1928 to 1935; of particular note are his 1929 “Reuben, Oh Reuben” and two recordings of Dick Burnett’s “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, one for Vocalion in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1931. After the conclusion of his recording career, Emry Arthur returned to Indianapolis, where he remained, with Della, until his death on August 22, 1967.
Vocalion 5264 was recorded on August 30, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois; Arthur’s ninth session. He recorded unreleased takes of both sides the previous month. Emry Arthur accompanies himself on the guitar.
An all around classic folk song, Arthur’s “Train Whistle Blue[s]” shares much in common with “K.C. Railroad Blues” recorded by Andrew and Jim Baxter, and “K.C. Moan” by the Memphis Jug Band.
Train Whistle Blue, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.
On the reverse, Emry sings another fine blues, “Empty Pocket Blues”, also drawing many floating verses from folk music tradition.
Empty Pocket Blues, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.
Rex Kelley, a.k.a. Buck Nation, pictured on the cover of Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, circa 1935.
It’s time now to pay a visit to the Great Depression days of guitar strumming cowboy singers in ten-gallon hats and Mexican radio stations blasting their music thousands of miles past the border into United States, free from the auspices of the Federal Radio Commission. Many of those countless, fairly small time folk singers made their fame on the radio and were never recorded for posterity, and of those who were, many only recorded sparsely. Falling into the latter category is the performer who appears on the record presented herein: the one relatively prolific but now long forgotten Buck Nation.
Buck was born Rex Frederick Kelley on September 12, 1910 in the American badlands: Burke, South Dakota, a settlement of about three-hundred situated in-between the Missouri River and the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Dropping the “e” from his last name, Kelly went to traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin early in 1932 to make his debut recordings for the faltering Paramount Records, resulting in six sides. Adopting the stage name “Buck Nation”, he returned to the studio three years later, this time for Decca, resulting in twenty-two recordings made in January and February of 1935, some solo and others in duet with fellow singing cowboy Ray Whitley, plus several more playing guitar behind Tex Ritter. Likely around the same time, he and his wife Louise—who performed with him as “Tex Ann”, and later divorced him and married Merle Travis—published a collection of songs titled Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, which included many of the songs he recorded. Sometime in the 1930s or ’40s, he was one of the numerous cowboy singers to appear on “border blaster” radio, on XEPN in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. He recorded another ten sides for Bluebird in 1940 and ’41 with Ed and Lloyd West as a member of a Sons of the Pioneers style vocal group and string ensemble called the Airport Boys, which predicted the styles of folksinging groups of the 1950s such as the Kingston Trio. During World War II, Kelley served as a corporal in the United States Army. After the war’s end, he recorded once again as a member of the the Six Westernaires with Porky Freeman and Slim Duncan, appearing on the Black and White label in 1946. Rex Kelley reportedly suffered from a drinking problem, and he died on January 11, 1965.
Broadway 8323 was recorded in January or February of 1932 at the New York Recording Laboratories’ studio in Grafton, Wisconsin by Rex Kelly, accompanying himself on guitar. It was the fifteenth to last record issued in Broadway’s 8000 “hillbilly” series, and operations at the NYRL ceased around six months later. Being from 1932 and a Paramount product to boot, it can’t have sold too many copies
On the “A” side, Kelly sings an amiable rendition of a traditional cowboy ballad which you may recognize as the familiar “Streets of Laredo”, under the title that it was given by its purported writer Frank H. Maynard: “Cowboy’s Lament”. The ballad evolved from the British folk song “The Unfortunate Rake”, the same source that gave way to the famous “St. James Infirmary”, with which it has a degree of lyrical similarity.
Cowboy’s Lament, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.
On the “B” side, he sings “Broncho [sic] Mustang”, a song that bears more than a little topical resemblance to its contemporary “Strawberry Roan”, which Kelly recorded previously at the same session. His style of delivery leads me to believe Mr. Kelly drew considerable inspiration from Frank Crumit (coupled with the fact that he also recorded Crumit’s “Down By the Railroad Tracks”).
Broncho Mustang, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.
It’s come time we heard again from one of my favorite cowboy singers: Carl T. Sprague. This is a record that I’ve had since my earliest days of collecting, one of about a hundred that I inherited from my great-great-grandfather. As such, it’s been in my family since its original purchase in 1925. Like many of that bunch however, the condition leaves something to be desired. I’ve been searching fruitlessly for a replacement copy for some time, but as of yet no cigar. (If you happen to have a copy you’re looking to get rid of, let’s talk.) It escaped my interest for a long while after it arrived in my possession; before I’d listened to it, I assumed it was just a run of the early vocal record like all the Henry Burr and John Steel and whatnot that the old folks seemed so fond of. Once it finally made its way onto my turntable, I realized I had been missing out. It piqued my interest in old folk music and introduced me to Carl T. Sprague. I later delved deeper to uncover more about the history of both songs, and became even more enthralled. Suffice to say, it’s since become one of my favorite folk music records. Both songs were popular comical songs in the second half of the nineteenth century, and both were scarcely recorded in the next century. Though Sprague is credited on the labels as composer of both sides, the songs actually predate his birth by quite a few years. Both were originally published on broadside song sheets, as was common practice in the several centuries preceding 1900.
Victor 19813 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on August 3 and 5, 1925. It was released in December of that year, and cut from the catalog in 1928. They are among the earliest electrical recordings made, only a few months after Victor introduced their new process. The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes that Victor’s “Special Booklet 1925” as a source. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s possible that this record never saw widespread release. Obviously staples of his repertoire, Sprague re-recorded both these sides in 1972 for his eponymous LP.
First, is Sprague’s first recorded side, “Kisses”, a song which dates back to the days of broadside song sheets. It was originally published in 1882 as “Sock Her on Her Kisser”. Another version was recorded in 1941 by Lewis Winfield Moody for the Library of Congress by Robert F. Draves, under the title “Everybody Has a Finger in the Pie”. Chubby Parker of WLS recorded “The Kissing Song” in 1931, which may be a version of the same song, but having never heard it, I cannot confirm. Canadian folklorist MacEdward Leach collected a version of the song as “Turtle Dove” in Newfoundland in 1951. The DAHR makes note that a re-make (take “5”) of “Kisses” was recorded on June 22, 1926; this take appears to be the originally issued one (“3”). Sprague’s 1972 re-recording of the song was titled “Kissing”.
Kisses, recorded August 3, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.
On “B”, Sprague sings another popular humorous ditty titled “The Club Meeting”, also known as “I’ve Only Been Down to the Club”, seemingly the first of only a very few recordings of the song. Like the previous, this song was originally published on a broadside; it appears to have been originally published by E.H. Harding of New York in 1876, words and music by Joseph P. Skelly, also known for the memorable 1884 song “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother”, recorded by Vernon Dalhart and others. Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters (a.k.a. Hill Billies) recorded the song as “Down to the Club” in 1927 for Brunswick, the lyrics to which were transcribed and printed in the songbook “The Roaming Cowboy”, Book No. 2, published by the “border blaster” radio station XEPN of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico in the mid-to-late 1930s. Another version was sung by Sam Bell of Tuolumne County, California for the Library of Congress in 1939, recorded by Sidney Cowell Robertson. Additional recordings were made by Walter Coon for Gennett in 1930 as “The Club Had a Meeting” and Billy Vest for Columbia in 1931 as “The Club Held a Meeting”, but neither were released. (And my apologies for the label butchery, you can thank my great-great-grandfather’s fondness for writing numbers all over his records and my own attempt to get the junk off.)
The Club Meeting, recorded August 5, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.
Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range. Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off. However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.
The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930. Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen. Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.
Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature. Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas. During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were. Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”. When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma. The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year. McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success. McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937. In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association. Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.
Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director). Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date. The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own. The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell. McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.
Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”. It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929. In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934. Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.
By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor. The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned. Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”
Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.
On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire. In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West. It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.
Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).